Final Gleams of the Epirus Epopee
(Sketch-map no. 20)
- The Greek Army, in the Albanian Theatre of Operations, after its victorious struggles and its advance deep into the northern Epirus territory, was confined, during the months of January and February 1941, to static fighting, mainly due to the extreme severity of the winter. From March 9 to 26, it had confronted the ‘Spring’ attack of the Italians with success and retained the occupied territory.
Despite the fatigue and the hardships of war, the Greek Army preserved its high morale and aimed at new successes.
Since March 27 and until the German attack of April 6, the situation in the Theatre of Operations did not present any significant changes. The war activity was mainly confined to artillery and patrol action, in order to maintain contact. The conduct of a few local operations in the sector of the Western Macedonia Field Army Section (WMFAS) was an exception aiming mainly at the improvement of the occupied positions.
- After the German attack had been launched on April 6, the General Headquarters, implementing what was agreed on during the conference of the Allies, held at the Kenali railway station on April 3, ordered the WMFAS to commence the offensive on April 7, on the general axis Koritsa-Elvasan-Dyrrahio, in co-operation with the Yugoslavian forces which were to operate from the area of Debar-Strouga towards Elvasan.
For the implementation of the above mission, the WMFAS sought to co-operate with the Yugoslavian forces and after many efforts, this was finally achieved through telephone communication with the Yugoslavian Army of Tetovo at 0230hrs, on April 7, and an operation was agreed to begin in the morning of the same day by both Armies, at the same time if possible. However, on the Yugoslavian side there was only artillery fire from 0700-0800 hrs in the direction of Lin, whereas the WMFAS launched an attack at 1330 hrs with the XIII Infantry Division.
The XIII Division, despite the vigorous Italian resistance, managed to seize the height 1116 and to capture almost an entire Italian battalion of 20 officers and 527 soldiers. Subsequently, the attacking troops were held in position before the height 1301, suffering heavy losses.
The Yugoslavians, who were asked at 1400 hrs about their failure to launch the attack which had been agreed assured that this would commence at 1730 hrs with only a single battalion of the Strouga Division, because the Division was in the process of mobilisation. Nevertheless, they were once more confined to some artillery fire and the minimal infantry fire of the screening forces.
Thus, the joint operation of the Greek and Yugoslavian forces against the Italian forces in Albania was not carried out, since the Yugoslavians did not conduct any serious offensive north of Achrida lake.
For the following day, April 8, the WMFAS had decided to launch an attack, starting at 0630 hrs with the IX and XIII Divisions. However, the attack was postponed, because of the untimely arrival of the artillery ammunitions and the adverse weather conditions. Nevertheless, IX Division troops, carried away by the enthusiasm and impetuosity of their officers, sallied forth before the new time of attack was set and infiltrated the Italian lines, where they took approximately 250 prisoners. These troops, however, were eventually forced to withdraw, suffering heavy losses.
- Meanwhile, the incoming intelligence, at the WMFAS since the morning of April 8, presented the situation in southern Yugoslavia as chaotic and the Yugoslavian forces in that area in almost total disarray.
Subsequently, the WMFAS proposed the suspension of offensive operations to the General Headquarters. This proposal was approved and thus, as of l000 hrs, on April 8, all further offensive activities were halted. The troops of the IX and XIII Divisions remained at the positions they had occupied through previous small-scale operations, until that evening and then returned to their bases. Only the troops occupying the height 1116 were ordered to remain at their positions.
Changes in the Greek-British Disposition
(Sketch-map no. 20, 23, 24)
- The rapid development of the situation in Yugoslavia posed new serius problems for the General Headquarters, since by that time a danger situation had arisen, threatening the front of Central Macedonia and the eastern flank of the Greek Army in Albania. The German advance southwards via Monastiri would outflank from the left the ‘W’ Force troops in the Vermio area and threaten the rear of the Greek forces in Albania.
Thus, the General Headquarters decided to transfer the defensive disposition further to the west, facing northwards, in order to block off the corridor from Prespa Major lake to Vevi. Thus, on April 8, it ordered the ‘W’ Team to evacuate hastily the northern sector of its area, from Kaimaktsalan to Vegoritis lake and to occupy the Stena Kirli Derven (Klidi) area, as far as Nymphaeo, advancing the 1st Armoured British Division towards Monastiri, in order to delay the enemy. Furthermore, it assigned the Cavalry Division again to the WMFAS, with mission to cover the Varnous-Verno mountain area from the east, as far as the area of Nymphaeo, where it was to join with the ‘W’ Team forces.
At the same time, since April 8, the Commander of the CMFAS, Lieutenant General of the Reserve Ioannis Kotoulas, was replaced by Major General Christos Karassos, who had been commander of the 20th Division until then. The command of the 20th Division was assigned to Colonel Miltiades Papakonstantinou, who had been its Infantry Commander until then.
- The required re-disposition followed. The Cavalry Division, that was also reinforced with the 2lst Infantry Brigade, was positioned in the Varnous-Verno area, chiefly assigned to cover the Pisoderio pass. This Brigade began its organisation on March 23, in Biglista and comprised the 88th Infantry Regiment, a Machine-gun battalion and two Artillery battalions. The Greek – British forces of the ‘W’ Force were positioned at the remainder of the area Klidi-Vegoritis lake-Vermio mountain-Olympus mountain, as follows :
The Klidi defile was assigned to a team under the command of Major General Mackay, Commander of the 6th Australian Division, which comprised:
-The command of the l9th Australian Brigade with 1st Australian Anti-tank Artillery Regiment, two Australian Infantry battalions, the Motorised Scout Battalion of the 1st Armoured British Brigade and a New Zealand Machine-gun battalion, astride the defile.
-The Dodecanese Regiment, Southwest of Kelli, organised in Athens on November 13, 1940, and relocated at the end of February to the area of Vevi-Klidi.
- The 1st British Armoured Brigade (Hussars Armoured Battalion, 3rd Tank Regiment), as a reserve in the area of Perdika village.
The 20th Division was ordered to secure its left flank at Vegoritis lake and to block off the routes from Edessa westwards. The troops, that withdrew from the Kaimaktsalan area occupied positions on the heights that lay west of Vegoritis lake.
The XII Division, which had been operationally under the command of the 1st Australian Army Corps, was ordered to block off the Hadova pass and the mountain routes of Vermio mountain.
Thus, the new disposition of the Greek – British forces in the area of Vermio, which was completed on April l0, was the following:
-On the left, the Cavalry Division (under the command of the WMFAS) along the pass of Pisoderi, further on, the Mackay Team along the Klidi defile and further to the east the 20th Greek Division (under the command of the CMFAS) as far as the Agra pass, Northwest of Edessa.
-On the right, the 1st Australian Army Corps with the 2nd New Zealand Division along the passes of Olympus mountain, the l6th Australian Brigade on southern Vermio mountain and the XII Division along the Hadova defile.
The width of this area was approximately 170 kilometres, and was therefore sparsely manned and unsuitable for prolonged defence. Further more, the extension of the front to the north of Amydeo absorbed all the reserves.
- Meanwhile, the events developed at a rapid pace. The XL Army Corps, operating south of Nyssa in order to cut off the Yugoslavian forces that were present in the area of Leskovats, seized Skopje in the night of April 8 and Monastiri in the afternoon of the following day. Continuing its advance into the Greek territory, it seized the defenceless town of Florina at noon on April l0. Further to the north, on the same day, the German forces seized the area of Achris lake and gained contact with the Italians.
The Germans, following these successes in southern Serbia and the capitulation of the EMFAS, began to prepare the second phase of their operations against Central Greece. To that effect, the Commander of the l2th German Army Marshal Von List organised two attack teams :
- The Western team, under the command of General Stume, Commander of the XL Armoured Army Corps, that comprised the 5th and the 9th Armoured Divisions, the 73rd Infantry Division and the ‘Adolph Hitler SS Bodyguard’ and would be operating along the axis of Florina – Larissa.
-The Eastern team, under the command of General Boeme, Commander of the XVIII Mountain Army Corps, that comprised the 2nd Armoured Division, the 5th and 6th Mountain Divisions and the 72nd Infantry Division and would be operating along the axis of Thessaloniki-Litohoro.
- After the rapid advance of the German forces, General Wilson, deeming that the defensive area of Klidi could not withstand the attacks of the Germans and would thus place the Vermio area at a risk, proposed the abandonment of the occupied position and the occupation of the Siniatsiko-Vourinos-Kamvounia-Pieria-Olympus area.
This proposal was approved of by telephone by the Commander-in-Chief, on April l0, and was officially confirmed at their meeting in Farsala on the following day, April 11.
The new defensive area was strong and more economical and could be held, provided that, the two Greek divisions that were at the Vermio area, would occupy positions in time to conduct an effective defence of the Siatista and Klissoura defiles.
The British forces would take over the zone from the coast of Platamonas to the river bend of Aliakmonas. The Greek XII and 20th Divisions would take over the zone Vourinos-Siniatsiko and the Cavalry Division with the 2lst Infantry Brigade would remain at their positions on Varnous and Vernon mountains. The troops would have to settle in their new positions by April l3. The XII and 20th Divisions, after withdrawing to the new defensive area, would cease to be subordinate to the ‘W’ Team and would return to the CMFAS, which would come under the command of the WMFAS as of April 14.
The Mackay Team, after covering the withdrawal of the XII and the 20th Divisions from the direction of the Klidi defile, would then withdraw to the new defensive area, delaying the enemy with the lst British Armoured Brigade. After the termination of the withdrawal, this Team, which had been especially organised to defend the Klidi defile, would cease to exist. The Australian units would return to the lst Australian Army Corps, while the lst British Armoured Brigade would concentrate in the area of Grevena as a reserve.
The Seizure of the Klidi Area and the Withdrawal towards Siniatsiko
(Sketch-map no. 23)
- Following the occupation of Florina, the XL Armoured Army Corps focused its main effort on breaking through the defile of Klidi (Kirli Derven), employing the ‘Adolph Hitler SS Bodyguards’ for that purpose along with elements of the 9th Armoured Division. Concurrently, other troops moved along the road Florina-Pisoderi. East of Vermio, in the valley of Axios river, there was no activity worth recording.
In the night of April 10 to 11, forward German motorised troops took contact with the area of the Klidi defile. On the following day, April 11, the German activity was limited, due to the severe cold and the continuous drizzle. Two German battalions attacked the Australian positions astride the defile, at nearly the end of the day, but were repulsed. The German tanks were not used because they had been immobilised before the minefield on site.
An action towards Pisoderi saddle, in the sector of the Cavalry Division, during that same day, was repulsed with considerable losses on the German side.
- On April l2, the Germans continued their attacks under the same adverse weather conditions. At 0830 hrs, the elite team of the German Army ‘SS Adolph Hitler Bodyguard’ launched a frontal attack, with artillery support, against the Klidi area, with its main effort towards the east of the road, at the limiting point between the British Motorised Scout battalion and the Australian Infantry battalion. At approximately 1100hrs, the German troops managed to infiltrate and envelop the Australian battalion. The British Motorised Scout Battalion suffered heavy pressure and was forced to withdraw towards the railway station of Klidi, under the impression that the Australians had retreated. The Australian battalion held its ground all afternoon, but after being attacked by German tanks at 1730 hrs, it was forced to retreat in disarray with serious losses, abandoning many weapons and other war supplies.
The other Australian Infantry battalion, that was defending the western section of the defile, was not notified about the withdrawal, because of the destruction of the telephone communications, but was able to retreat in small sections in the evening, when the Germans had nearly infiltrated its lines.
Further east of the defile, the Germans launched an attack upon the empty positions of the Dodecanese Regiment, at the time when the latter had already retired, after receiving an order to that effect. The German troops arrived at the village of Petra at 2015hrs, where they took 60 Australians and 40 Greeks prisoners. The Dodecanese Regiment, manned mainly by volunteers, after its withdrawal from the Klidi area ceased to exist as an organised unit, since part of its troops climbed British motor vehicles and were directed towards Ptolemaida, Kozani, Siatista and Grevena and part of them were attacked by German tanks near Amydeo and fled to the south in disarray.
Further to the west, in the sector of the 2lst Greek Brigade, Battalion 1/88, which was situated at its right, confronted nearly two German battalions from 1530 hrs until 1800 hrs. The struggle was unequal and the Battalion suffered heavy losses. Those of its men who survived and were not taken prisoners, dispersed towards the woodland of Radosi.
The Commander of the 88th Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel of the Reserve Georgios Hondros, wanted to counter-attack with a small reserve force and sallying forth first, revolver in hand, was shot dead by the fire of an automatic weapon.
- In the morning of April l3, the Germans continued their advance southwards and gained contact with the rear guard of the lst Armoured British Brigade. The latter, assigned to cover the other Greek – British forces, was forced to conduct a tough fight in the area of Amydeo and to the south of Ptolemaida, where its forces had been echeloned. The conduct of the entire retrograde movement was orderly completed. In the area of Amydeo, there was the only incident of tank fighting that occurred during the German invasion, in the course of which the German tanks abandoned their effort to advance towards Kozani. The British troops, successfully supported by the artillery, managed to be disengaged in time and to retreat towards Kozani and from there on to Grevena, where they arrived in the morning of April 14.
It is worth noting that the Artillery units of the British Expeditionary Corps, though enveloped by the Germans, remained at their positions, firing effectively until nightfall. Furthermore, the Infantry and Tank units also displayed unequalled bravery, self-control and faced the attacks of the elite and far stronger German forces with self-sacrifice.
After the Klidi area had been abandoned, the Team of Major General Mackay ceased to exist and the Australian forces returned to the lst Australian Army Corps, which as of April 12 was named ‘ANZAC Corps’ (Australian-New Zealander’s Army Corps), in memory of the First World War.
- Meanwhile, based on the decision taken on April 10, to retire from the Vermio area and settle in the area Siniatsiko-Vourinos-Kamvounia-Pieria-Olympus, the 2nd New Zealand Division, after having left delaying troops in the area of Katerini, began, on April l2, to move towards Olympus-Platamonas.
The Greek 20th and XII Divisions began to withdraw the bulk of their forces in the evening of April 11 and 12 respectively, towards their new positions at Siniatsiko and Vourino, after having left a third of their forces in the area.
The Cavalry Division, after coming to an agreement with the neighbouring 20th Division, altered its disposition and took up positions on mount Vernon, from the lake Prespa Major to the west of the Verbista height.
The withdrawal of the 20th and XII Divisions was conducted under adverse weather and psychological conditions and only part of their forces managed to reach their positions in the new area by the night of April 11 to 12. Many soldiers, particularly those who came from the areas that had already been occupied by the Germans began to slip away to their homes. Consequently, the forces of the above Divisions were no longer considered to be in good fighting condition, capable of confronting elite German units, such as the ‘SS Adolph Hitler Bodyguard’.
- The establishment of the Greek – British forces in the new area of Siniatsiko-Aliakmonas-Olympus was completed by the evening of April 13 and was, from east to west, the following :
-The 2nd New Zealand Division (comprising the 4th, 5th and 6th Brigades) was established with the 4th Brigade at the defile of Porta, as far as the Aliakmonas river, and with the 5th Brigade at the right flank, with three battalions at the defile of Petra and with one battalion at the coastal crossing of Platamonas. The 6th Brigade remained as a reserve in the area of Elassona.
-The 6th Australian Division (comprising the l6th, l9th Brigades) occupied the area south of Servia with the l6th Brigade, in order to cover the mountain passes between the defiles of Petra and Porta, and west of Servia with the l9th Brigade, on the western bank of Aliakmonas river. The liaison between the 19th Australian Brigade and the 4th New Zealand Brigade was assigned to a battalion of the latter Brigade which had advanced in the area of the village Rymnio.
-The XII and 20th Greek Divisions occupied the Vourino and Siniatsiko area in order to secure the passes of Klissoura, Vlasti and Siatista.
-The Cavalry Division, together with the 2lst Infantry Brigade, occupied the Vernon area, assigned as before to secure the Pisoderi pass.
-The lst British Armoured Brigade was at Grevena as a reserve and possibly as a flank guard.
- In the evening on April 13, the total strength and disposition of the Greek – British forces that were expected to confront the two German Army Corps, (the XL Armoured Division, operating from the field corridor of Florina, and the XVIII Mountain Division, operating from the direction of Thessaloniki), the total strength of which was seven and a half divisions, of which three and a half were armoured. Furthermore, the Germans had indisputable air superiority and, with the improvement of the weather conditions, had commenced vigorous action throughout the entire front.
Under these circumstances, General Wilson began to perceive how dangerous the situation was, having also in mind the intelligence reports about the disorganisation of the Greek units to his left. That could result in an unopposed German invasion on either side of Pindos mountain towards Ioannina and Grevena. There were also reports about an impending capitulation of the Yugoslavian Army and because there was no possibility of reinforcement from Egypt, he finally decided on April l3, to withdraw the British forces to the Thermopilae area. For that, he sent the appropriate troops to make reconnaissance. At the same time he decided to send the l7th Australian Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Savage, to Kalambaka, in order to block off the exit of German forces from Ioannina to the plain of Thessaly, via Metsovo, and from Kastoria, via Grevena. This Brigade, that had the 6th Australian Division as a parent unit, arrived in the area of operations on April 12.
This decision of General Wilson to retreat to Thermopilae, could be considered as premature, since the ANZAC Corps had not yet made contact with the Germans in any part of the Aliakmonas river area, and the Greek forces that were situated on the mountains, west of the Florina and Kozani high plateaux, also retained their positions.
Battles in the Area of Siniatsiko-Olympus mountains
(Sketch-map no. 24, 25)
- The Western Assault Team (XL Armoured Army Corps) after breaking through the defile of Klidi, which is the main gate of invasion from the north to the high plateau of Kozani, ordered the ‘SS Adolph Hitler Bodyguard’ to operate in the direction of Ioannina, via Grevena and Metsovo, in order to cover the right flank of the l2th Army and to gather concrete information about the situation of the Greek Army which was on the west of Pindos. The operation, if successful, would naturally cut off the withdrawal route of the Greek forces that were fighting in Albania. At the same time, it ordered the 9th Armoured Division to continue its advance towards Kozani and further to the south, in pursuit of the retreating British.
The ‘SS Adolph Hitler Bodyguard’ and elements of the 9th Armoured Division moved rapidly towards Klissoura and the passes of Vlasti and Siatista and by midday, on April l4, after a twenty-four hour fighting, forced their way through the Klissoura defile, which had not been manned in time by the 20th Division with sufficient forces.
The Greek troops that occupied the passes of Vlasti and Siatista were not pressured as heavily and retained their positions, without, however, possessing the means to confront a strong German attack.
- The break through of the Klissoura defile permitted the Germans, by this point, to advance towards the Southwest and to cut off all the forces of the CMFAS east of Aliakmonas river, leading to their defeat and captivity.
Facing this situation, the Commander of the CMFAS decided to withdraw his forces west of the river, in the night of April 14 to l5. The withdrawal of the two CMFAS Divisions was conducted in order, via the bridges of Giagovo and Neapolis, but the morale of the troops had suffered irreparable damage and all efforts, on the part of the commands, to re-organise the units were unsuccessful. The notion of the futility of continuing the struggle had penetrated within all ranks and the common effort to avoid captivity was evident.
This led the units, after an attack by German aircraft and artillery fire on April l5, to disperse and break up almost completely. The CMFAS Headquarters began to move towards Kalambaka, but, at approximately 1000 hrs, on April 16, it received an order of the WMFAS, to move, with all available troops, to the area of Metsovo following mountain routes.
Thus, as of April l6, the co-operation between Greek and British forces was finally terminated.
- The lst British Armoured Brigade -that had been deployed in the area of Grevena- also withdrew, during the night of April 14 to l5, to the southern bank of Venetikos river. The withdrawal of the British troops was conducted under adverse weather conditions and incessant air attacks.
In the following night, April 15 to l6, the Brigade was ordered to continue its withdrawal, without being involved in any fight, and to reach Kalambaka, where the l7th Australian Brigade had already arrived.
- In the meantime, the 9th German Armoured Division arrived in Kozani in the morning of April l4, and part of its forces advanced further southwards, in pursuit of the British who were retreating. Nevertheless, it was unable to achieve a rapid crossing of Aliakmonas river, north of Servia, because the bridge had already been destroyed and thus halted its advance.
From the morning of April 15, the Germans attacked the 4th New Zealand Brigade and the 19th Australian Brigade, with troops that had crossed the river during the night using assault boats, in the area of Rymnio village, but were subjected to the sustained fire of the New Zealanders and were forced to surrender. Two more attacks were also repulsed with heavy losses during the day. The total number of casualties, on the German side, were 395 prisoners and approximately 200 killed in action and wounded, whereas the casualties of the British, who retained their positions, where exceedingly few, due to the good cover and terrain organisation.
After the failure of the German attack at Servia, General Stume decided, continuing the frontal engagement of the British forces on site, to by-pass the area of Aliakmonas river with the 5th Armoured Division, that had just been placed at the disposal of the XL Armoured Army Corps and to advance towards Lamia via Grevena-Kalambaka.
The 5th Armoured Division seized Grevena on April 16 and continued its movement towards Kalambaka, where it arrived in the afternoon of April l8, since the entire previous day had been taken up with the bridging of Venetikos river. Subsequently, Marshal List ordered General Stume to advance towards Lamia, sending at the same time a force towards the pass of Metsovo. .
- The Eastern Team (XVIII German Mountain Army Corps), that had occupied Thessaloniki since April 9, should operate against the Vermio area, with the 6th Mountain Division towards Edessa, (Agra defile) and with the 2nd Armoured and 5th Mountain Divisions towards Veria (Hadova pass). However, the rapid advance of the XL Armoured Army Corps in the corridor of Monastiri-Florina and the withdrawal of the ‘W’ Force, made this frontal attack against Vermio unnecessary.
After the occupation of Veria on April 11, the bulk of the XVIII Mountain Army Corps was directed southwards with the objective to seize the passes of Olympus (Petra defile-Platamonas-Tempi) and to invade the plain of Thessaly. At the same time, a flank guard, comprising a regiment of the 2nd Armoured Division and a Motorcyclist battalion of the 72nd Division was sent towards the defile of Servia (Porta defile) via the defile of Tripotamos.
On April 14, forces of the 2nd Armoured Division and the 6th Mountain Division after a two-day hard fighting with heavy losses crossed the Aliakmonas river in the area of the railway bridge south of Alexandria and continued their advance towards the northern slopes of Olympus.
On April l5, the German 5th, 6th Mountain Divisions, 2nd Armoured Division as well as a detachment from the 72nd Division, attacked the zone of the 2nd New Zealand Division and advanced towards the eastern passes of Olympus. The 2nd Armoured Division operated with two columns from the area of Katerini. One towards the defile of Petra, which forced the New Zealanders to withdraw towards Agios Dimitrios, without recording any further success and the other from Litohoro towards Platamonas, pressing strongly and creating a danger of envelopment of the area from the direction of Platamonas-Tempi-Larissa.
On the following day, April l6, the 6th Mountain Division began an enveloping movement from the southern slopes of Olympus and from the pass of Leptokarya-Kallipefki towards the village of Gonni, where a German battalion arrived on the following day. At the same time, the troops of the 2nd Armoured Division advanced as well, arriving in the afternoon on April 17 at the north-eastern entrance of the Tempi valley.
- What could be concluded from the development of the battles that took place in the passes of Olympus and the area of Aliakmonas river, was that the situation of the ANZAC Corps was entering a new phase, starting in the morning of April 16. The principal threat against it was by then discernible at its eastern flank, in the crossing of Platamonas, and not in the western, where the situation was quite satisfactory.
The initial assessment was that the passes of Olympus could be held without great difficulty and for sufficient time to allow the unoposed disengagement of the ANZAC forces. However, the outcome of the battle of Platamonas on April l6, and the already discernible threat on the right (eastern), made it expedient that the situation should be dealt with immediately, in order to block off the German infiltration towards the plain of Thessaly via the Tempi valley.
The Withdrawal of the Greek Army from Albania
(Sketch-map no. 24, 26)
- The rapid development of events in Macedonia, which came as a natural consequence of the collapse of the Yugoslavian resistance, placed, as previously mentioned, the Greek High Command, before a series of problems demanding a quick solution.
The advance of the XL German Armoured Army Corps towards Monastiri and the rapid invasion to the Greek territory, in conjunction with the forces advancing through the valley of Axios, threatened to cut off the Greek – British forces at the Vermio area.
Furthermore, if the Germans would occupy Kastoria, they would be at the rear of the WMFAS and their subsequent advance towards Grevena-Ioannina would cut off the retreat route of the EFAS.
So far, the measures taken to avert the first threat have already been mentioned as well as the manner in which the ‘W’ Force conducted its withdrawl from the Vermio area and was deployed in the area of Siniatsiko-Vourinos-Olympus. Nevertheless, the confrontation of the second threat demanded the abandonment of all or part of the occupied territories in Northern Epirus, which had been gained after glorious struggles and heavy sacrifices and on which Greece had indisputable historic and racial claims.
- This withdrawal of the forces of the Albanian Theatre of Operations had always been considered, both from the political and the military point of view, by the Greek General Headquarters, ever since the problem of confronting the German threat had been posed in January 1941. Regarding the military point of view, the purpose of the withdrawal was always to bring the forces of the Albanian Theatre of Operations in good fighting condition onto a certain defensive line, that would allow the safe containment of the Italians and would save forces in order to use them against the Germans.
Such a line was either the Greek – Albanian borders, from the sea to Mertzani, or the internal line of Kalamas-Elea-Smolikas or the line further south, from Aoos river towards Orliaka mountain-Venetikos river-Aliakmonas river as far as its estuary, onto which the forces of the Bulgarian Theatre of Operations would also withdraw.
This deep withdrawal, even if regarded solely from the viewpoint of movement, presented a very serious danger of disorganisation for the units, which had already been worn down by the five-month winter campaign. In order to reduce this danger, the withdrawal would have to be conducted in successive phases. The time required to conduct the withdrawal in order, was estimated to be approximately one month.
- However, after the collapse of the Yugoslavian resistance and the appresiable imminent German threat and in order to avert irreparable disaster, the Greek High Command was forced to cope with the immediate evacuation of Albania.
Thus, after the seizure of Monastiri by the Germans on April 9, the General Headquarters decided to gradually evacuate Northern Epirus and Western Macedonia as fast as possible and also to occupy and secure, with the Greek -British forces, the area Vouthrotos lake-Greek Albanian borders-Smolikas mountain-Aliakmonas river-Olympus mountain.
The British would occupy the territory between the coastal passage east of Olympus and the bend of Aliakmonas river, north of Deskati. The forces of CMFAS and WMFAS (under the command of the latter) would occupy the territory between the bend of Aliakmonas river and Smolikas mountain, while the forces of the EFAS would occupy the remaining territory as far as the Ionian Sea.
The evacuation of Albania was to begin since April 12 with the withdrawal of the WMFAS forces on the general direction of Koritsa-Kastoria-Grevena. The withdrawal would be covered from the directions of Monastiri and Thessaloniki by Greek and British-Greek forces, deployed initially in the area of Varnous-Verno-Kirli Derven pass (Klidi)-Vermio-Olympus and in the case of a German break through of the Klidi passage in the area of Megali Prespa lake-Verno-Siniatsiko-Aliakmonas-Olympus. The area Varnous-Verno as has already been mentioned, was assigned by the WMFAS to the Cavalry Division and the 2lst Infantry Brigade.
In order to secure the transportation towards the rear areas, which could be threatened in the event of an unfavourable development of operations on the front of Central Macedonia, on April l0 the General Headquarters ordered the XI Division, which was a reserve at Leskoviki, to move through Mertzani to the pass of Zygos in the area of Metsovo, and to secure the communication with Kalambaka.
- In the meantime, the Greek Army in Albania continued to hold on firmly to the territory it had gained until then and to stand as an immovable rock, before which the Italian “Primavera” (Spring) attack had been crushed with heavy casualties, for the enemy.
The general disposition of the Greek forces in Albania, during the period of the German invasion of Greece was, from south to north, the following:
- In the Southern and Central Sector, the Epirus Field Army Section (EFAS), with the A’ and B’ Army Corps under its command:
- The A’ Army Corps occupied the Southern Sector of the front and had at its disposal the III Division, from Himara to the valley of Sousitsa river, the VIII Division, in the area of Argyrokastro, and the II Division, Southwest of Klissoura, on either side of Drinos river.
- The B’ Army Corps, occupied the Central Sector and had at its disposal, in contact with the enemy, the IV Division on Sendeli mountain, the V Division on Trebessina mountain, the XVII Division from the northern slopes of Trebessina mountain to the saddle of Boubessi and the VI Division west of Apsos river. On a second echelon, it had the I Division north of Premeti, the XV Division in the area of Klissoura and the XI Division in the area of the villages Bali and Roden.
- In the Northern Sector, the Western Macedonia Field Army Section (WMFAS), with the XVI Division, from Tomoros mountain to Devolis river, the X Division, north of Devolis river, the IX Division in the area of Kamia-Mnima Greas, and the XIII Division, in the area of Pogradetz, under its command and in contact with the enemy. On second echelon, there was only the Cavalry Division Southwest of Koritsa.
- The general situation of the units in the Albanian Theatre of Operations could not be considered satisfactory. The strength was 10-20% below the war establishment and there were great shortages in pack animals and ammunition. The weapons of the infantry battalions were reduced by approximately 50%.
The invasion of the Germans into the valley of Axios river, the occupation of Thessaloniki and the collapse of the Yugoslavian resistance in southern Yugoslavia, created an alarming atmosphere with serious repercussions on the morale of the Army.
This rapid and dramatic turn of events affected the higher ranks as well, within which the notion of the futility of resisting the Germans began to grow. A first manifestation of this damaging influence on the leaders’ morale, was the letter sent on April 11, by the Commander of the A’ Army Corps to the Commander of the EFAS, in which he proposed a capitulation with the Germans.
Similar notions prevailed within the B’ Army Corps as well, the Commander and some of the division commanders of which believed that the withdrawal would signify the commencement of the disorganisation and communicated their views to the Commander of the EFAS.
The Commander of the EFAS, having forbidden any talk of capitulation, submitted the following report to the General Headquarters :
‘Corps Commanders inform me : Recent events following the German invasion have affected troops. They believe that retrograde manoeuvres in great depth will not be devoid of the dangers of an inglorious disintegration of the Army. They request that a solution be found ensuring the salvation and the victorious prestige of our Army’.
On the contrary, in the WMFAS the events were initially confronted with greater composure and the situation regarding the morale was aggravated later on, even though, there too, there were discussions concerning the need for some quick decision-taking. Indicative of the spirit that prevailed, is that the Commander of the XVI Division expressed his impatience considering a decision as to what ought to be done and he threatened that, in the evening of the same day he would commence the withdrawal of his Division on his own initiative.
The Retrograde Manoeuvre of the WMFAS
(Sketch-map no. 24)
- The WMFAS, being certain of the withdrawal, began preparations since April 11 and notified its divisions, so that they could plan the manoeuvres of their units. When the Commander-in-Chief requested the Chief of Staff of the WMFAS to submit specific proposals, the latter at once submitted the following report: ‘The opportunity to assume the retrograde manoeuvre has gone by at the expense of the army, which though victorious was forced to stand as an onlooker, watching the enemy advance on its rear’.
With this answer, the WMFAS underlined the direct danger of getting cut off from the retreat routes and the need to start the retrograde movement the soonest possible, so as to avert the encirclement of forces in the Albanian Theatre of Operations.
Within this depressing atmosphere, the WMFAS received, at midday on April l2, the order of the General Headquarters to the WMFAS and the EFAS for a retrograde manoeuvre that was to commence in the evening on that same day, whereas the evacuation of Koritsa was to start immediately.
The first objective of the WMFAS withdrawal would be the occupation of the area of Apsos river-Kiafe Kiarit saddle-Grammos mountain-western branch of Aliakmonas river-Smixi-Klissoura pass, in four nights (April 12-15).
In order to avoid any unforeseen incidents, the WMFAS assigned two of its reserve battalions to the Tsangoni defile, one to Koritsa and one to the pass of Kiafe Kiarit. The Cavalry Division would retain its positions until the other WMFAS divisions arrived on the line of Dipotamia-Ieropigi-Vatochori and would then continue, delaying the enemy.
- The WMFAS Headquarters was relocated since midnight, April 12 to 13, in Kastoria. The movement of divisions and non-divisional units and formations began in the evening on April l2, according to the plan.
The XIII Division, commencing its retrograde movement towards Tsangoni-Ieropigi-Smixi, would retain the Tsangoni defile until the units of the IX and X Divisions were conveyed east of Darza. The intention of the Division was to bring the bulk of its forces behind the Tsangoni defile at a bound and to move to the Greek – Albanian frontier at a second bound. Smixi had been designated as the third and final location (area of Vogatsiko). The withdrawal of the Division was conducted in order.
The break-up of contact, was a full tactical success because it did not attract the attention of the Italians, due to the full preparation and the high morale of the men of the Division. The Headquarters of the Division was relocated in Biglista as of midday, April 13.
The IX Division began to withdraw, along two mountain routes, as far as Maliki lake and then continued along the axis of Maliki-Koritsa-Darza. By midday, April l3, it had reached between Maliki and Koritsa. Starting that same afternoon, it continued its movement and by the morning of April 14 it had deployed east of Morova.
The X Division commenced its withdrawal along the axis Devolis river-Koritsa-Darza-Nestori. In general, the retrograde movement was conducted in order, except for the passage through the plain of Koritsa, where movement was difficult, because the Division troops met the withdrawing troops of the IX Division.
The XVI Division withdrew towards Erseka, along the axis Tomoritsas river-Moschopolis, in order to occupy the saddle of Kiafe Kiarit (Southwest of Koritsa) and to cover the withdrawal of the EFAS from the direction of Koritsa-Erseka-Leskoviki. For that, the I Division of the EFAS moved also to the same area. The two divisions comprised a Division Group after April l3, which was designated the ‘Borova Division Group’ as of April 17.
- On April l3, the XIII, IX and X Divisions continued their orderly withdrawal, without being harassed by the Italians. The General Headquarters notified the WMFAS and the EFAS that the final general line onto which their forces would withdraw was that Vouthroto lake- Greek-Albanian borders-Smolikas mountain-Venetikos river. The WMFAS upon arriving with the bulk of its forces at the upper valley of Aliakmonas, would take the CMFAS (XII and 20th Divisions) under its command and would continue the withdrawal onto the axis Kastoria-Kalambaka, as far as the final line.
In the meantime, the Germans, advancing in the Florina corridor, had broken through the locality of Klidi on April 12 and were moving to occupy the defile of Klissoura. If their attempt was successful, they could turn in the direction of Argos Orestiko and threaten the only retreat route of the WMFAS units.
Subsequently, the XIII Division, which at midday on April l4, had the bulk of its forces in the area Tsangoni-Biglista, was ordered to hasten its movement and cover the withdrawal of the remaining of the WMFAS forces by the evening of April l5, securing the territory of Smixi in connection with the CMFAS in the area of Klissoura. At midnight, April 14 to 15, the XIII Division was reinforced with a battalion in the area of Maniaki village and was deployed with the XIII Reconnaissance Group on the heights that lay south of Kastoria lake, in order to cover the route of retreat of the Division towards Argos Orestiko-Grevena. The Division Commander intended to contain the Germans at all costs until the evening of April l5, so that the bulk of the Division could escape through the only route existing towards Grevena. The occupation of the Smixi area, according to the WMFAS plan, was by then pointless, since after breaking through the Klissoura defile, the Germans were moving unopposed towards Neapoli-Grevena and the CMFAS had been almost completely disintegrated.
The deployment of the above troops contained the Germans and secured the timely escape of the bulk of the XIII Division forces during the night of April 14 to 15.
The IX and X Divisions continued their retrograde manoeuvre towards the frontier, where they arrived in the morning on April l5. In the 30th Regiment of the Division, a serious incident of insubordination took place in the night of April 14 to l5. Two second lieutenants of the reserve took 280 soldiers with their armament and led them to Grevena, where they surrendered to the Germans.
The XVI Division arrived in the night of April 14 to 15 to the area of Kiafe Kiarit and began its deployment which continued during the following day.
The Cavalry Division and the 2lst Infantry Brigade, which had been assigned to the area of Verno in order to cover the withdrawal of the WMFAS as well as that of the left flank of the ‘W’ Force from the area of Klidi, after the loss of the Klissura defile, send forces towards the area of Aposkepos village and blocked off the pass of Photini, north of Kastoria lake.
- In the morning of April 15, the ‘SS Adolph Hitler bodyguard’ was contained while advancing after the break through of the Klissoura defile, by the XIII Division troops that had been positioned south of lake Kastoria and which had been reinforced in the meantime. The Cavalry troops on the pass of Photini kept their positions, despite the successive tank assaults and the airforce action. Motorised German troops that launched their main effort against Argos Orestiko and their secondary effort in the direction of the Photini pass, were repulsed.
As of midday, new German infantry and tanks began to move towards the villages Ambelokipi and Militsa. A Pack Artillery battalion, reinforced with four additional batteries and deployed west of Ambelokipi village, contained the German troops and impeded the approach of the reinforcements from Klissoura. The German artillery counteracted and, at 1330 hrs, managed to neutralise the above Artillery battalion. Its Commander, Major Paparodou was killed, his body falling on his guns.
At 1330 hrs, the Germans launched another serious effort, the third in succession, and at approximately 1400 hrs they seized Ambelokipi. The Commander of the Cavalry company on site, Captain Kleitos Hatzeliadis, fighting heroically, also fell on the line of duty. The troop resistance was bowed after a new serious German attempt, supported by approximately 40 aircraft. At approximately 1900 hrs, the Germans encircled and seized Argos Orestiko and at approximately 2000 hrs Kastoria from the south. Those of the troops that were able to escape captivity, moved towards Skalochori village, since the retreat route towards Grevena-Kalambaka had already been cut off.
The IX Division started moving in the afternoon of April 15 and continued during the night of 15 to 16, towards its final area east of Nestorio. The Division Headquarters was established at Anthiro village.
The X Division continued its withdrawal without any harassment by the Italians and passed Grammos mountain at the borders. Then it was forced, after the development of the situation in the area of Argos Orestiko-Kastoria, to turn to the southwest towards the mountainous area of Pindos.
- Meanwhile, the WMFAS notified its divisions, by phone, that the retreat route had been cut off and defined that the troops would have to move towards Metsovo via the mountain passes of Pindos, their re-supply provided by local sources. A new Command Station was set up in Kalambaka.
As of 1700 hrs, on April l5, all telephone communications with the divisions were interrupted and were only restored after the concentration of the latter in the area of Metsovo.
Thus, the first phase of the retrograde manoeuvre of the WMFAS, i.e. the disengagement, had been conducted so skilfully that the Italians never regained contact with it.
Since April l7, the WMFAS was redesignated as C’ Army Corps with the IX, X, XI, XIII and XVI Divisions, under the same Commander, Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou and was made subordinate to the EFAS. Its Headquarters was initially established at Metsovo as its Command Station and, later on, at Votonosi. The Mission of the C’ Army Corps was to cover the areas of Epirus and Akarnania in the general line of Aoos-Mavrovouni-Katara-Tzoumerka.
The Retrograde movement of the EFAS
(Sketch-map no. 26)
- The withdrawal of the EFAS units began under conditions of nervousness and within a defeatist mood. The aim was to initially occupy the defensive line southern bank of Aoos-Klissoura-Sevrani-Mali Kelkes-Kiafe Kiarit by the morning of April 16 and then to defend the final line, from the Vouthrotos lake to Venetikos river. The EFAS had been authorised by the General Headquarters to order the direct withdrawal, as far as the final line, throughout its entire zone.
The withdrawal began on the night of April 13 to l4. The B’ Army Corps, would begin first, whereas the A’ Army Corps would begin to withdraw on April l6. Nemertska mountain was a barrier between the A’ and B’ Army Corps and thus the A’ Army Crops would have to conduct its manoeuvre separately, having the possibility to use two main routes (Argyrokastro-Kakavia and Himara-Konispolis) within its sector. The B’ Army Corps would have to cross mainly through the bridge of Mertzani and secondly through the nearby bridge of Skordilis (foot soldiers only) of Sarandaporos river, where the routes, from Klissoura and Kiafe Kiarit, converge.
- The withdrawal of the B’ Army Corps began with the V Cretans Division, which was in a state of real exhaustion, having remained on the front-line since the beginning of February and under adverse weather conditions.
The movement of its troops, that began at 2100 hrs, on April 13, soon became, in many cases, a true flight of panic-stricken soldiers. The Division’s efforts to halt the flight failed and the leak continued. In the morning of April l5, after an order of the B’ Army Corps, the command of the Division was assigned to its Infantry Commander, Colonel Dionysios Papadongonas. Its units continued to withdraw under the same conditions and in the morning of April 16 they arrived and stopped in the area of the villages Petrani-Fourka.
The IV Division was also disengaged in the night of April 13 to l4. The Italians noticed the withdrawal in the morning of April 14 and gained contact during the same evening. A leak, of soldiers, happened in some units of this Division as well, and in many cases the officers of those units were required to man automatic weapons by themselves. In the night of April 16 to l7, the Division withdrew west of Aoos river and came under the command of the A’ Army Corps.
The XVII Division which occupied the sector of northern slopes of Trebessina-Boubessi, was subjected, at 0630 hrs on April l4, to an extremely powerful Italian attack, with the main effort directed against the centre of resistance of the fought for 731 height, which was very important for the entire defence of the Division. The Italians, despite their effort, were unable to climb the height and, at approximately 0830 hrs, were forced to temporarily suspend the attack due to the heavy losses, yet continuing to shell the area with artillery fire. The Italian attack was repeated at 1730 hrs, on the same day, but was once again repulsed.
The withdrawal of the Division commenced at 2030 hrs and was conducted orderly, without attracting the attention of the Italians. The withdrawal continued on the following day and in the morning of April l6, the Division had reached the area of Kossina village.
The VI Division, into which the Yiannakopoulos Detachment had been incorporated since April 3, began to withdraw its units, in the night of April 12 to l3, to Kapina village, whereas the bulk of the Division moved in the night of April 14 to l5. The Italians engaged in intense artillery activity and small-scale counter-attacks in various parts of the Division front, but were repulsed. In the morning of April l6, the Division had reached the area of Hairopouli village.
The XV Division, which was on a second echelon, seized and held positions at the height of the area of Tabayian village since April 13 and remained there until April l5. In the meantime, many men of the Division, who were affected by the disorderly withdrawal of the V Division troops, abandoned their positions and fled to the rear. The Division adopted hard measures to avert any further leak and to punish the fugitives. The court-marshal, that was immediately convoked in the village of Rabani, sentenced to death two soldiers of the 90th Regiment, who were executed on the same day. After this, any further leaks were terminated.
The I Division, which together with the XVI of the WMFAS comprised the Borova Division Group, arrived in the area of Kiafe Kiarit on the morning of April 14 and undertook to defend the pass in the north of the Bataros height. The morale of the troops was very low, especially in the 5th Regiment, where a great leak had been recorded, leaving a mere 40-50 men per company, despite the shooting of fugitives on the spot – as an exemplary punishment.
The XI Division, that was a reserve of the EFAS in the area of the villages Bali and Roden, had been ordered on April l2, to move to the area of Metsovo, in order to cover the EFAS from the direction of Katara. Due to the urgency of the situation, five battalions were transported by motor vehicles, whereas the remaining of the Division followed on foot. At 1730 hrs, on April l4, after the rapid turn of events in Western Macedonia, the Division was ordered to dispatch four of the preceding battalions, to the area of Eleftherochori (south of Grevena) at the disposal of the ‘W’ Team, in order to cover its left flank. Its fifth battalion was positioned on the saddle of Katara and undertook to carry out the entire initial mission of the Division. Thus, on the morning of April l5, one part of the Division was in Kalambaka, one in Metsovo and another one within the Albanian territory.
- It was evident that the general situation of the EFAS in the morning on April 16 was extremely alarming, due to the development of the situation in Western Macedonia and the discernible threat from that direction, while its retrograde manoeuvre was still at its first stage. The A’ Army Corps, had not yet begun its retrograde manoeuvre, remaining at its positions, west of Aoos, until the first stage of the B’ Army Corps manoeuvre had been completed.
Yet, the most alarming fact of the entire situation was that the troop morale continued to decline. The rate of insubordination and flight to the rear kept rising. On April l5, the situation was reported to the General Headquarters, which, by order of the Commander-in-Chief, made a plea, that every effort should be made to restore the discipline and to defend the fatherland. That was a matter of national interest.
The Commander of the EFAS, Lieutenant General Pitsikas called a meeting of the Commanders of the A’, B’ Army Corps and the WMFAS, after which the views were expressed in a written report that was conveyed to the Commander-in-Chief. Bearer of the report, was the Deputy chief of Staff of the EFAS, Colonel Grigoropoulos, who appeared before the Commander-in-Chief at approximately 1900 hrs, on April 16.
The report was as follows:
“(a) The situation of the Army from the aspect of morale and discipline is extremely crucial. It is getting worse every moment.
(b) The corps leaders painfully foresee that we shall not reach the final area in time. The Army would have been disintegrated.
(c) The causes of this situation are the fatigue, the occupation of Greek territories and the fear of being captured by the Italians.
(d) We believe that any further resistance is impossible. An eventual dispersion of the Army will create internal disorder and brigand bands with indescribable disasters for the country. The spectre of dispersion appears evident in those units which contain soldiers who come from territories that have been occupied by the enemy, such as the XV, the XVII, the VI Division…”
On April l6, the EFAS reported to the General Headquarters, in a cryptogram, that after the situation that had arisen, the need for political intervention was dire. The reply of Athens, after successive meetings with the officer sent by the EFAS, was that the Government could not accept the solution of capitulation, since the British troops were still remaining and fighting in the country. It was only by fulfilling its allied duties completely, that Greece would have the full support of Great Britain after the end of the war.
- At 2200 hrs on the same day, during a new meeting -attended by the Army Deputy Minister, Papadimas, and the Minister of Public Security, Maniadakis – the Army Deputy Minister said that when the Government would depart, the solution of the capitulation requested by the Army could be implemented. This was accepted by the Minister of Public Security and the Commander-in-Chief.
Colonel Grigoropoulos directly reported, by phone, his impressions to the EFAS. In the evening of April l6, the latter issued an order to the A’ and B’ Army Corps and the Borova Division Group, regarding the orderly continuation of the retrograde manoeuvre and the need to maintain the cohesion of the Army.
- The A’ Army Corps began the withdrawal of its units in the night of April 16 to l7, along the axis of Argyrokastro-Kakavia-Zitsa, without attracting the attention of the Italians.
On April 20, the Corps was already established, without serious problems, at the designated final area on the Greek – Albanian borders.
- The B’ Army Corps continued the withdrawal without serious harassment by the Italians, but with increasing decline of morale and alarming escalation of insubordination incidents. By April 20, all Corps divisions had crossed south of Aoos, under the cover of the XV Division, which had undertaken to secure the bridge of Mertzani.
- The Borova Division Group (I and XVI Divisions) had decided to withdraw by the morning of April l7, to the area of Borova, abandoning the Kiafe Kiarit area, because it was considered difficult to retain, due to the constant aggravation of the situation of its units. To that end, it organised a Detachment, comprising some of its units which were already at the new area, under the command of Colonel Spyridon Georgoulis, Infantry Commander of the XVI Division. The Detachment was assigned to secure the area of Borova and to cover the right flank of the B’ Army Corps.
The enemy attached I Division in the morning of April l6. The attack lasted the entire day, but the enemy was unable to break through the Division’s positions, despite the leak of a great number of its men towards the rear, which in many units exceeded 50% of their strength. On the night of April 16 to17, the Division withdrew to the area of Barbasi village, under the cover of the Georgoulis Detachment. On the following day, April l7, it was ordered by the Division Group to move towards Konitsa so as to regroup and rest temporarily. The movement of the Division troops was conducted during the night of April 18-19 and 19-20 without any particular problems.
The XVI Division, in accordance with the order of the Division Group, withdrew on the night of April 16 to l7, to the area of Borova and, since April l8, assumed the command of the fighting in its entire front. The Georgoulis Detachment ceased to exist, since the same day, and its troops were placed under the command of the XVI Division.
On the following day, April l9, the enemy launched succesive attacks which the Division which it was nevertheless able to repulse, in spite of the heavy pressure it was subjected to and the continuous action of the Italian airforce. In the evening on April 20, by order of the Division Group, it too began to withdraw towards Konitsa.
The Withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force towards Thermopilae
- In the morning of April 16, the Commander-in-Chief Papagos met with General Wilson outside Lamia. During that meeting, they agreed that the British forces should withdraw, starting on the night of April 16 to l7, to the locality of Thermopilae. The retirement of the l9th Australian Brigade, from the area west of Servia, had already begun by the previous evening, which meant that the Greek Commander-in-Chief was placed before a ‘fait accompli’.
At the end of the discussion, the Commander in chief declared: ‘The time has come for the British troops to deal with their evacuation from Greece in order to avoid any further destruction of the country’.
- The withdrawal of the British forces from the locality of Olympus to the new area of Thermopilae, according to General Wilson’s plan, would be conducted as follows:
-The 6th Australian Division would initially withdraw, under the cover of the 2nd New Zealand Division, to the area of Pinios and would occupy positions between Zarko village and Larissa. A Division section would advance to Domokos, as a rear guard, assigned to block off the road of Lamia-Larissa. Then, after the withdrawal of the 2nd New Zealand Division, it would withdraw as well, along the axis of Larissa- Farsala-Domokos-Lamia, in order to deploy its troops on the pass of Brallos, on the left (west) of the Thermopilae area.
-The 2nd New Zealand Division, after having covered the withdrawal of the other forces by deploying part of its troops in the area of Elassona, would withdraw along the axis Larissa-Volos-Stylida-Lamia, so as to deploy its forces on the right (east) of the Thermopilae area.
-The lst British Armoured Brigade, which by April l6, was incorporated in the ANZAC Corps, would cover the withdrawal from the direction of Grevena and Kalambaka, and would then withdraw to the area of Atalanti as a reserve force.
- The l7th Australian Brigade, which was deployed in Kalambaka, after having covered the left flank of the withdrawing forces, would then withdraw along with the 6th Australian Division to the pass of Brallos.
The movement of all forces would be conducted by motor-vehicles and their deployment in the area of Thermopilae would have to be completed by the morning of April 20.
- The 6th Australian Division, according to General Wilson’s plan, was the first to begin the withdrawal under the cover of the 2nd New Zealand Division.
Its l9th Brigade that had begun to withdraw from the area west of Servia by April l5, crossed Aliakmonas river over a makeshift bridge, after having previously destroyed on site the trucks and the armoured vehicles that could not cross it. After crossing the river, the units moved, on foot towards the village Mikrovaltos, where they mounted other vehicles and moved in the direction of Domokos.
The other Brigade of the Division, the l6th, began its withdrawal on the night of April 16 to 17 from the area east of Servia, but the pace was very slow, due to the mountainous terrain. In the morning of April 17 and while the Brigade withdrawal continued, German troops began to move through the mountain passes of Lower Olympus, towards the western entrance of the Tempi valley, creating a threat on the right (east) flank of the British forces.
Subsequently, the Commander of the lst Australian Corps (ANZAC), Lieutenant General Blamey formed a detachment under the command of Brigadier General Allen, Commander of the l6th Australian Brigade, comprising two battalions from the l6th Australian Brigade and one battalion from the 5th New Zealand Brigade, that was deployed, on April l7, on the southern bank of Pinios at the valley of Tempi. The detachment was assigned to delay the German forces until nightfall on April l8, securing Larissa from the east.
In the afternoon of the same day, April 17, German troops appeared on the ridgeline above Gonnoi village and entered the latter in the evening. The following morning a German battalion moved towards the village of Evangelismos and, by 1830 hrs, managed, after engaging in close combat with the Allen Detachment troops that were on site, to cross Pinios and break through the British defence. At that time, the village of Tempi was seized (25 km Northeast of Larissa) and the British were pressed at the railway station of Makrychori, while two other battalions also began to cross Pinios river. With the advent of darkness, the Germans suspended their advance.
The Allen Detachment, after having completed its mission to the full, withdrew in Larissa on the night of April 18 to l9. However, approximately five kilometres north of the town, it was attacked by German troops, which had been able to envelop it and had occupied the road at that point, thus surprising its men and causing them to disperse in various directions. Thus, as of that time, the Allen Detachment ceased to exist as an organised unit.
- The withdrawal of the 2nd New Zealand Division commenced on April 17 under the cover of its 6th Brigade, which had timely occupied positions between Elassona and Tirnavos. The 5th Brigade was the first to withdraw, from the defile of Petra, and the 4th Brigade followed suite, from the defile of Porta. On the morning of April l8, the last British troops had crossed the lines of the 6th Brigade and were moving towards Thermopilae.
At approximately midday, the first German tanks appeared before the 6th Brigade front, but were nevertheless contained and almost completely destroyed by the effective artillery fire and the mine laying that had been carried out in the various tank approaches. The 6th Brigade troops repulsed another fresh German attack at midnight, on April 18 to l9, and then withdrew as well, since their mission had been successfully accomplished.
- The lst British Armoured Brigade withdrew on the night of April 16 to l7, from Grevena towards Kalambaka, where it arrived in the morning on April l7. After leaving a small detachment, as a rear guard for the l7th Australian Division, it moved via Trikala towards Atalanti.
- The l7th Australian Brigade began to withdraw, in successive sections, towards the area of Zakros village on the night of April 17 to 18 and to establish its defence on the eastern bank of Pinios river, in order to cover the withdrawal of the final sections of the British Expeditionary Force from the west. In the evening on April l8, the Brigade conducted the authorised demolition on the Kalambaka-Trikala road with the Pioneer company and during the night of April 18 to 19, continued its withdrawal towards the pass of Brallos.
The last troops of the Brigade passed through Larissa at 0400 hrs, on April l9. During the early morning of the same day, forward troops of the 2nd German Armoured Division entered the town without encountering any resistance.
The Political Crisis and the Departure of the King and
the Government to Crete
- At 1000 hrs, on April 18, a meeting was held at the Palace, headed by the King and attended by Prime Minister Koryzis, the Ambassador of Great Britain Paleret, General Wilson, Commander in chief Papagos and others.
The Commander in chief, presenting the military situation, reported that the British forces, though still in good fighting condition, could not hold their ground at Thermopilae for a sufficient length of time. Furthermore, he referred to the serious difficulties faced by the Greek troops and to the decline of their morale.
The British declared that they were capable of holding their ground at Thermopilae until May 6, provided that the Greek troops would continue to fight in Epirus. The meeting came to an end without any decision being taken.
- At 1400 hrs on the same day, the Cabinet held a meeting in the presence of the King. The Deputy Minister Papadimas, expressed the opinion that even if it were possible to extend the defence at Thermopilae, this would be to no avail as the situation in the Albanian Theatre of Operations was tragic from every aspect.
After many discussions, the prevailing opinion was that the Greek resistance should be extended for the sake of the retirement of the British Expeditionary Force. The Deputy Minister who regarded the aggravation of the situation as unavoidable, deemed that, the only way out was the immediate departure of the King and the Government.
Thus, a political issue arose, because the Government would be either obliged to retire to Crete and leave the Generals free to call a truce or to give the order for that.
The Prime Minister Koryzis was at a loss and at the end of the meeting, during which no decision had been reached, he proposed the formation of a Government comprising other more dynamic members. Koryzis, who was clearly suffering from a nervous breakdown, went back to his home, where he committed suicide.
- At 1300 hrs, on April 19, a new meeting was held at the General Headquarters. This was also attended by General Wavell, who had arrived from the Middle East and Lieutenant General Mazarakis, who had been assigned by the King to form a new Government.
General Wavell declared that, the British Army would defend, provided that the Greek Army continued to resist, but because of the alarming information regarding its morale and added that his own troops were ready to retire, should the Greek Government wish so.
Afterwards, the British Ambassador read a telegram of British Prime Minister Churchill, who specified that the retirement of the British Expeditionary Force should take place with the full accord and approval of the King and the Greek Government.
Following a proposal of Lieutenant General Mazarakis, that retirement was the best solution, the King and the Government approved of the evacuation of Greece by the British Expeditionary Force. The Greek forces in Epirus would continue to fight until the retirement of the British was secured.
- Meanwhile, due to the complaints of the British regarding the bad situation of the Greek side in Central Macedonia, the Commander of the B’ Regulating Centre in Florina, Major General Panagakos, was summoned during the meeting and explained the way in which the operations were conducted. After this, General Wilson made the following statement: ‘After the information and explanation provided by the General, the honour and the reputation of Greece are fully restored. Furthermore, I declare, in the name of England, that she has no complaint against Greece, which has accomplished its duty to the end, fully and honourably’. At the same time, the British Generals expressed their admiration for the Greek resistance against the Germans and the Italians.
During that same evening, Lieutenant General Mazarakis did not accept to form a Government, because the intelligence reports on the military situation had become extremely disheartening.
At 1715, a new government gave the constitutional oath, with Vice Admiral Sakellariou as vice-president, and the King was temporarily the Prime Minister. On April 2l, Emmanuel Tsouderos gave the oath as the Prime Minister. The King and the Government departed for Crete, at 0400 hrs, on April 23. Before leaving, the King issued the following proclamation in which he declared the decision of the entire Nation to continue the fight until the final victory.
The King’s proclamation of 23 April 1941
‘The cruel destinies of war compel Us today, to depart from Athens, along with the Crown Prince and the lawful Government of the Country, and to transfer the capital of the State to Crete, from where we shall be able to continue the struggle which, the will of the entire Nation and the duty of safeguarding the independence and integrity of the Country, have compelled us to undertake, after the aggression of two empires.
The will of Ours, of the Government and of the Greek People, which has manifested itself in various ways until today, has required resistance to the end from the Greek forces, which despite the uneven struggle, especially after the German invasion, fought stubbornly against the enemy, with the assistance of the British troops that came to help us and fought gloriously and are still fighting on the Greek soil for a just cause.
Our forces, exhausted by the rough and victorious war, that they have conducted for six months against a far more powerful enemy, having written the most glorious pages of our military history, continued the struggle against Germany with inconceivable heroism.
We are still unaware of the exact conditions under which the army of Epirus signed a truce with the enemy unbeknown to Us, the Commander-in-Chief and the Government. This truce does not essentially bind the free will of the Nation, the King and the Government, which is to continue the struggle, with all of our remaining forces in order to safeguard the highest national interests.
Been obliged to go to Crete for this purpose, we are only doing so in order to be able to continue, freely and from free Greek territory, the struggle against the invaders until the final victory, which shall fully reward the great sacrifices of the Nation.
Greeks, do not be discouraged, even at this painful moment of our history. I shall always be with you. God and the right of the cause will help us to achieve the final victory with all means, despite the trials, the sorrows, the dangers, which we have suffered in common and shall suffer in the meantime.
Be faithful to the idea of a united, undivided, free country. Have strong your will. Set your Greek pride against the violence and the temptation of the enemy. Be courageous, the good days are to come. Long live the Nation.
The Capitulation of the Epirus Field Army
- From the moment the withdrawal of the Greek Army began from Albania, threatened by the double danger of encirclement by the Italians and the Germans in nearly all of the units there was alarm about the development of the situation, a factor which affected their fighting capacity to a considerable extent. Indeed, in many EFAS units, the notion that it was futile to continue the fight any further, began to prevail and serious cases of insubordination and dispersion were recorded. Men abandoned their troops on their own or in small groups, armed or unarmed, and hastened to their homes. As time went by, the decline of the morale began to affect a large number of higher rank members, who believed that the continuation of the fight was futile and would no longer serve any purpose.
The creation of the situation was also influenced by the following actions of the Ministry of the Army and the General Headquarters, which were of a more general nature. On April l5, the General Headquarters ordered the Regiment of Thessaloniki, that was stationed at Thiva, to grant 15-day regular leave to all soldiers who were natives of the occupied areas. At the same time, it requested the Ministry of the Army to apply the same measure to all officers of the Reserve and soldiers who were not indispensable. On the same day, the Deputy Minister ordered preparations to be made in order to transport to Crete all trained soldiers of classes 1940b, 194l, that were at the Peloponnese Training Centre as well as the army cadets of the Military academy. On April l6, he ordered a two-month regular leave to be granted to all untrained soldiers of the Reserve, who had been called until March 16, 1941, as well as a monthly leave to the officers of the Reserve of classes 1926 and prior to that date.
- The Commander of the EFAS, after the development of the situation in his units and the information he had received from Colonel Grigoropoulos, who returned to his base in the meantime, submitted the following report to the General Headquarters and the Prime Minister, in the morning of April 18: ‘The situation has reached its limit. The XVII [Division] troops are abandoning Legaritsa which covers the left flank of the Division Group. The A’ Army Corps similarly reports a military leak of the VIII Division. The XI Division, which covers Metsovo is leaking away. In the name of God, save the Army from the Italians. PITSIKAS’. Furthermore, at approximately 1100 hrs, he communicated by phone with the Prime Minister, whom he requested to provide a solution to the matter within the same day, because it was impossible to restrain the men any longer. The Prime Minister assured the Commander of the EFAS of a favourable solution to the matter within the course of the day. However, this solution was not offered, due to his committing suicide on the same day and to the political crisis that ensued.
Meanwhile, the Commanders of the A’, B’, and C’ Army Corps, as well as the Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop of Ioannina, Spyridon, pressed the Commander of the EFAS to take the initiative to call a truce with the enemy at once. After the decisive refusal of the latter to take such an initiative, the Commanders of the Army Corps with the active participation of Spyridon, decided to put him aside and offer the initiative to their senior Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou, Commander of the C’ Army Corps.
- The Commander of the C’ Army Corps reviewed the situation that had arisen with the Commander of the EFAS and discussed the posibility of an immediate cessation of hostilities. The latter agreed but refused to take the initiative to that end, thus on April l8, he sent his Chief of Staff, Colonel Athanasios Chrysochoou, to Athens, in order to report to the Prime Minister and the Commander-in-Chief and to ask for immediate decisions.
Colonel Chrisohoou arrived in Athens at 1600 hrs, on the same day, and met at once with the Commander-in-Chief, whom he briefed accordingly. The latter replied that he was fully aware of the situation, but being also the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Greece, he was unable to proceed to negotiations for capitulation with the enemy, at least not before the departure of the British from the country, which was planned to be carried out by May 5.
From this meeting, as well as from other contacts that the C’ Army Corps Chief of Staff had in Athens, he concluded that the situation had come to a dead end and that nobody wished to assume responsibility for the cease-fire. Thus, he send the following telegram to the Commander of the C’ Army Corps in the morning of April 19: ‘ Confidential personal for the General. To authority of the Field Army. If you assume the responsibility, first you ought to get authorisation from the other Army Corps, to assign the action to you as having contact with the Germans. Chrisochoou from Garrison Station Theta’. ‘Garrison Station Theta’ was the code name for the General Headquarters.
The above telegram, regardless of the fact that it bore the sign of the General Headquarters was sent unbeknown to the Commander-in-Chief and expressed only the views of the C’ Army Corps Chief of Staff.
- Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou, though he believed in the necessity of immediate capitulation, hesitated, until the evening of April l9, to take the initiative. However, the above telegram of his Chief of Staff, which he received at 0200 hrs on April 20, cleared his doubts and urged him to decide to finally ignore General Pitsikas and take the initiative for capitulation.
At 0545 hrs, on April 20, Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou telephoned the Commander of the EFAS and announced that he had been authorised by the General Headquarters as well as by the Commanders of the A’ and B’ Army Corps to call a truce. At the same time, he read out to him the abovementioned telegram, as if coming from the Commander-in-Chief, though he was definitely aware that this, had been sent by his Chief of Staff. Soon, a three member committee of C’ Army Corps officers departed to negotiate the terms of the truce with the Germans.
The military situation at that point was obviously serious but not yet desperate. Many threats were apparent but the main came from the direction of Kalambaka towards Metsovo, where the XI Division defended the passes of Katara and Zygos. The Germans had made reconnaissance as far as Koutsoufliani since the previous day. In the morning on April 20, a forward German column was shelled by the defenders but the fire was held after the fourth round, by order of the C’ Army Corps, because the abovementioned committee has been sent to the Germans to negotiate the truce.
- At 1800 hrs, on the same day, Major General Dietrich, Commander of the “Adolph Hitler SS Bodyguards” and Lieutenant General Tsolakogou signed a truce protocol at Votonosi village, in which it was decreed that, from 1800 hrs, the hostilities between Greece and Germany would cease. After a few hours, the hostilities between Greece and Italy would end as well, with the responsibility of the German Commander-in-Chief. By the morning of April 2l, the Germans would be positioned between the Italian and the Greek forces in order to secure the cease-fire. The Greek forces were obliged to withdraw to the old Greek-Albanian borders within ten days and to demobilise after surrendering their armament, and then return home. The officers would keep their weapons and equipment in honour as they were not considered to be prisoners of war.
An hour after signing the capitulation, a Staff officer of the C’ Army Corps notified the EFAS by phone that the truce had been signed. After that, the Commander of the EFAS, Lieutenant General Pitsikas considered himself ‘resigned’ and in the morning on April 2l, he left for Athens. The command of the EFAS was assumed by Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou.
- On April 2l, the Chief of Staff of the 2lst German Field Army and Major General Dietrich arrived in Ioannina with another protocol, different to the one that had already been signed. This change of attitude of the Germans was due to the Greek Government’s announcement for ‘defence to the last’ and to the necessity of a similar agreement with the Italians. Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou protested, but was forced to sign it ‘as a prisoner of war’ and ‘not of his own free will’.
The terms were worse than those of the initial protocol. The officers and soldiers were considered as prisoners of war, all supplies constituted spoils of war for the German Army, and part of those would be given to the Italians. Instead of the Greek-Albanian frontier, which was the withdrawal limit, it was stated that the separation zone for the cessation of hostilities would be defined in co-operation with the Italian Command. However, it was not mentioned clearly where this zone would be nor the time at which hostilities would end.
At midday, on April 2l, the EFAS received an order of the General Headquarters, by radio, to relieve Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou, as Commander of the C’ Army Corps, but it was already too late.
- On the following day, April 22, the Germans violated the agreement again. They demanded that messengers should be sent to the Italians in order to facilitate the signature of a truce with them as well. The carriage road of Igoumenitsa-Bisdouni-Metsovo was designated as the line separating the Italians and the Germans and it was made clear that the Greek forces, north of that line, would be considered as prisoners of the Italians and those south of it, as prisoners of the Germans, without specifying the precise time after which the above limit would be in force.
Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou, protesting because the original terms of the capitulation were altered for the second time within 48 hours, replied that ‘he is forced to comply under violence’.
Messengers sent to the Italians, signed a preliminary truce protocol, by which the hostilities would cease as of 2300 hrs, on April 23.
In the morning on April 23, Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou departed for Thessaloniki by German aircraft and there he signed the third and final capitulation protocol, with Marshal Jodle, Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, and Italian General Ferrero, Supreme Commander of the Italian Forces in Albania. The protocol was as follows :
Between the High Command of the German Army and the High Command of the Italian Army in Albania on the one side, and the Greek Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia on the other,
The High Command of the Royal Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia, represented by Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou, has delivered a demarcate to the High Command of the German Forces in Greece and the High Command of the Italian Army in Albania, requesting the acceptance of the unconditional capitulation of the Greek Field Army of Macedonia-Epirus.
Article 1. The German and Italian High Commands accept the said unconditional surrender of the Greek Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia.
Article 2. Those belonging to the Greek Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia are prisoners of war. Bearing in mind the bravery displayed by the Greek Troops, on the battlefield and the consequent preservation of their military honour the Greek Officers will keep their sword and equipment.
All Italian prisoners of war, who are located in the area of the Greek Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia must be delivered immediately to the Italian troops. The Greek prisoners of war will be concentrated, for the time being, into concentration camps.
After the end of hostilities on the Greek mainland and the Ionian isles, the liberation of all officers and soldiers has been authorised.
Article 3. The Greek High Command will make sure that the Greek troops will remain under the command of their officers and that all measures will be taken for the orderly implementation of the capitulation.
The re-supply and medical care of the troops in captivity is primarily a task for the Greek High Command.
Article 4. The weapons, the entire war materiel and the stock of this Field Army, including the airforce supplies, as well as the ground installations of the airforce are all considered as spoils of war.
Article 5. The Greek High Command will make sure using all possible means, that the hostilities will cease without delay, that all destruction or neutralisation of war materiel and supplies will end and that the roads located in the premises of the Field Army will be repaired at once.
Article 6. All departures from ports and all air communications in the area of the Epirus-Macedonia Field Army must be forbidden, and this condition comes in force immediately. The Greek High Command is responsible for the confiscation of ships present in the ports, including their cargoes, as well as the port installations and also that these remain under the supervision of the Greek troops, until a final decision has been taken about them.
Article 7. The High Command of the Greek Forces will appoint fully authorised staff liaisons, who will settle the details of implementing the capitulation with the German and Italian services, which will be fully named.
These staff liaisons will deliver, as soon as possible a complete list of the strength, equipment and army establishment of Epirus-Macedonia to this moment.
Article 8. The cessation of hostilities between the German Forces and the Greek forces of the Epirus-Macedonia Field Army remains in force, as defined in the surrender protocol of April 2l. The cessation of hostilities between Italian troops and the Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia is to come in force on April 23, at 1800 hrs, unless the Greek troops before the Italian front have surrendered their arms beforehand.
Article 9. The present agreement invalidates the surrender protocol of April 2l, which was drawn between the High Command of the German Forces in Greece and the Commander in chief of the Greek Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia.
On behalf of the Italian On behalf of the German
High Command in Albania Military High Command
Ferrero Alfred Jodle
The Commander in chief of the Greek Field Army of Epirus-Macedonia
In the meantime, during the night of April 22 to 23 and the next day of April 23, the Greek units continued to move towards Ioannina in order to be found south of the line Igoumenitsa-Bisdouni-Metsovo by the evening of April 23, in order to avoid being captured by the Italians.
The Germans eventually extended the time limit, so as to enable the remotest units to enter south of the dividing line, as well.
- On April 23, Commander-in-Chief Papagos handed in his resignation, which was immediately accepted by the King, who had already arrived in Crete.
On April 24, the organisation and disposition of the Greek Large Units was as follows:
-The A’ Army Corps (II, III, IV, V, VI, VIII, XV, XVII Divisions) in the area south of Ioannina, as far as Preveza.
-The B’ Army Corps (I Division) in the area of Metsovo.
-The C’ Army Corps (IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, 20th Infantry Divisions, Cavalry Division and 2lst Infantry Brigade) east of Metsovo, as far as Kalambaka.
The Divisions were reduced to about one fourth of their original strength and remained at their above positions until their demobilisation.
On April 25, Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou, after assigning the command of the Epirus Army to Lieutenant General Demestichas, departed from Ioannina, headed for Athens, and on April 29 formed a Government of military and political personalities.
On May 2, Hitler granted complete freedom to the officers and soldiers who were, officially at least, regarded as prisoners of war until then.
The A’ Army Corps units, which, by approval of the German Command of Ioannina, had begun to move towards Agrinio and Messolongi since the previous day, continued their movement and kept on sending officers and soldiers back to their homes, according to the instructions given by the Ministry of National Defence.
The units of B’ and C’ Army Corps that had been greatly reduced in strength, disbanded on the spot. The officers and soldiers moved to their native area, according to the orders of Greek Command present.
The last to depart was the EFAS echelon, on May 4, by motor-vehicles, and which arrived in Athens on May 7.
The Departure of the British and the Completion of the Occupation of the Mainland of Greece
(Sketch-map no. 27)
- The British Expeditionary Force, after its successful disengagement from the area of Olympus, managed, by the evening of April l9, to withdraw the bulk of its forces onto the general line Brallos pass-south of Sperchios-Molos, as follows:
- The 6th Australian Division, in the evening of April l9 arrived, at the pass of Brallos, with the l9th Brigade astride the road and the l7th Brigade further to the west. The l6th Division remained as a reserve. During the night of April 23 to 24, the l6th and l7th Brigades moved towards Megara to board ships and depart.
The lst Armoured British Brigade in the evening on April 18 arrived in Atalanti and moved directly to Thiva, with the exception of its artillery units, which reinforced the 2nd New Zealand Division.
The 2nd New Zealand Division seized and held the pass of Thermopilae, with the 6th Brigade on the right, from the coast to Molos, and the 5th Brigade directly on the left. On the night of April 22 to 23 the 5th Brigade arrived at the port of Portorafti from where it departed for Crete on the night of April 24 to 25. Thus, the cover of the entire Thermopilae front was assumed by the 6th Brigade. The 4th Brigade was assigned to survey the coast southwards, in order to repulse a possible landing attempt of the Germans from Evia. On the night of April 23 to 24, the Brigade moved to Erithres, south of Theves, where it established its defence in order to cover the withdrawal of the remaining forces towards the south.
- Thus, in the morning on April 20, nearly all the troops of the British Expeditionary Force were in the area of Thermopilae, covering a front of about 50 kilometres, from the coast to the pass of Brallos. The two weakened ANZAC Divisions, should confront five German divisions (2 Armoured, 2 Mountain and one Infantry Division) , which continued their advance unrestrained.
In the evening of April 20, the bridge of Alamana was blown up, after a report, that was later proved to be inaccurate that German tanks had moved to the south of Lamia.
On the following day, however, German tanks actually moved to the plain of Lamia, but they were fired by the New Zealand artillery and temporarily halted their advance.
In the evening of April 22, a German motorised column of the 5th Armoured Division, that was operating in the sector of the 6th New Zealand Brigade, took contact with the troops that were deployed in Thermopilae, where it was contained by the effective fire of the artillery.
On the following day, April 23, the Germans continued their offensive with the 5th Armoured Division, against the sector of the 6th New Zealand Brigade at Thermopilae and with the 6th Mountain Division, against the sector of the l9th Australian Brigade at the pass of Brallos. A fierce fight ensued as well as intensive artillery duel. The British forces, in spite of the enemy superiority in force as well as its air supremacy, managed to retain their positions until the evening of April 24, containing, the German advance for a period of time necessary to facilitate their disengagement.
In the night on April 24 to 25, the British abandoned the area of Thermopilae-Brallos and withdrew southwards.
In the morning on April 25, the only troops left north of Athens (at Erithres) were the rear guard of the 4th New Zealand Brigade and part of the lst British Armoured Division.
- In the meantime, on April 24, Marshal Von List also reinforced the XL Armoured Army Corps with the XVIII Mountain Army Corps, and ordered it to advance in the direction of Athens-Korinthos and to establish a bridgehead on the Isthmos as soon as possible. There was a plan to seize the latter with parachutists, while, simultaneously, motorised units would conduct an enveloping action from Evia.
Elements from the 5th Armoured Division that had pursued the British, occupied Thebes, in the evening on April 25, while a motorcyclist battalion that landed in Evia, was ferried over to Viotia and continued to Athens which was occupied on April 27, without any resistance.
A committee had been appointed for the surrender of Athens, comprising the Head of the Athens Garrison, Major General Christos Kavrakos, the Prefect, Vice Admiral Konstantinos Petzopoulos and the Mayor, Amvrosios Plytas. That committee waited the Germans at the suburb Ambelokipi and surrendered the city to them. During the entry of the Germans and the passage of German troops, through Athens the inhabitants remained shut inside their homes. Soon after, the swastika would be raised on the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis.
- The defence of the Korinthos Isthmos from the attack of airborne troops was assigned to the Isthmos Detachment, under the command of Brigadier General Lee. Its mission was to keep the Megara road open and also to prepare the demolition of the railway and the road bridges at the Isthmos canal after the passage of the last British troops.
The Germans employed over four hundred tri-engine aircraft, with approximately 800 parachutists, in order to seize the Isthmos. The aircraft took off from Larissa at 0500 hrs on April 26. The parachutist dropping began after a severe bombardment of the British positions. Although many of the parachutists were killed in the air and others fell into the canal, the Germans eventually managed to seize the bridge intact, taking advantage of the confusion on the British side. Nevertheless they were unable to cut the firing wires and remove the demolition charge in time. The bridge was eventually blown up by two young British officers, who managed, by firing accurately with rifles and from a distance of 200 meters, to detonate the explosive charge.
By 0800 hrs, the activity around the bridge had ended, since the Germans had occupied both of banks of the Canal.
- At the same time, the Division “Adolph Hitler SS Bodyguards” moved from the area of Ioannina towards Agrinio and Messolongi and in the evening on April 26, arrived in the area of Patra. From there, one of its regiments moved by train towards Korinthos, where at 1730 hrs, on April 27, it was informed that the parachutists who had occupied the Isthmos had already been relieved by other Army units, that had arrived from Athens. Subsequently, the ‘SS’ units returned to Patra and continued towards Kalamata via Pyrgos, assigned to cut off the departure of the British from the area.
The 5th Armoured Division, after a makeshift repair of the Isthmos bridge, crossed over to the Peloponnese and moved in the direction of Argos-Tripolis-Gythio and Kalamata, where on April 29, it met the troops of the “Adolph Hitler SS Guard” that had arrived by train from Patra.
- In the meantime, by order of the British Expeditionary Force, the command of all troops that were in the Peloponnese was assumed by Major General Freiberg, as of the night of April 24 to 25, whereas General Wilson departed by sea plane, for Crete.
The departure of the British was to take place from the ports of the south-eastern coast of Attiki and the Peloponnese and in particular from Rafina, Portorafti, the area of Megara, Agii Theodoroi, Nafplio, Monemvasia and Kalamata. These ports were severely attacked by the German Airforce, with considerable losses to both the task and the merchant fleet of the British and the Greeks.
The l9th Australian Brigade embarked at Megara on the night of April 25 to 26.
The l6th and l7th Australian Brigades, in the evening hours, moved from Myli to Kalamata, where part of them managed to embark on the night of April 26 to 27, while approximately 7,000 men waited on the pier, because the night hours did not suffice to permit the completion of the embarkation.
The 4th New Zealand Brigade, that operated as a rear guard at Erythres, moved and occupied positions south of Markopoulo in the morning of April 27 and retained the last bridgehead there before Portorafti. In the evening, it embarked without any incidents and sailed for Crete, while the remaining personnel of the lst British Armoured Brigade departed from Rafina.
The 6th New Zealand Brigade, that moved via Tripolis, arrived in the morning on April 28 at Monemvasia. In the night of April 28 to 29, its entire strength boarded the ships and sailed for Crete. Major General Freyberg departed with it as well.
- A force of approximately 1,700 men, in the area of Nafplio primarily formed by units of the interior, were taken prisoners by the Germans on April 28. Only few men avoided captivity, managing to escape by small boats to the nearby islands.
The 7,000 men force that remained in Kalamata grew to 10,000 men on the same day, of which 8,000 were unarmed. Among them, there were approximately 2,000 Yugoslavian soldiers, Cypriot and Palestinian men from the Pioneer company, as well as Greek civilians. This force had been organised into four detachments that were in readiness to embark at 2100 hrs on cruisers and destroyers, that would sail into the harbour in the meantime.
In the early evening, the troops began to move towards the sea, but an advance guard of the 5th German Armoured Division entered the town and hastened towards the pier. Armed British troops counter-reacted effectively and the embarkation began by 2130 hrs. Shortly after, however, the ships sailed away in haste, in order to join the fleet, by order of the British Commander-in-Chief, because the Italian Fleet had appeared. Thus, approximately 10,000 men were doomed to captivity for the entire war.
In the morning on April 29, the Germans took about 7,000 prisoners, while the rest fled. What was so tragic in this case was that, the information about the appearance of the Italian Fleet proved later to be inaccurate.
- With this surrender, the British expedition in the mainland of Greece was terminated. On April 30, the last British troops had been captured or had escaped and the hostilities had ceased.
In total, 50,732 British men departed, that is, 80% of the forces that had been despatched to Greece and of these about 27,000 landed on Crete, while the rest were transferred to Egypt. Approximately 1,400 British men, who remained in Greece without being captured, later escaped to Crete, Chios and the Aegean islands as well as to the coast of Asia Minor.
The occupation of the mainland of Greece was gradually completed by German and Italian troops.
On May 3, a triumphant parade of the Germans and the Italians was conducted in Athens before Marshal List, with the complete abstention of the inhabitants, who remained shut inside their homes. The participation of the Italian troops in the parade was ordered by Hitler himself, in order not to hurt the pride of his allies.
The total number of casualties of the British Expeditionary Force were approximately 12,000 men. Moreover, 209 aircraft and 8,000 vehicles were either lost or abandoned. The German casualties were approximately 5,000 men. According to German sources, the Germans in Greece seized 54 heavy and 444 light guns, 431 mortars and infantry escort guns, 49 antitank guns, 151,050 rifles, l34 armoured vehicles, 2,710 motor vehicles and approximately 600 other wheeled vehicles as well as large quantities of supplies.
The Occupation of the Greek Islands
- At the same time with the occupation of mainland Greece, the most important islands were taken by the Germans and the Italians without any resistance, with the exception of Limnos and Crete. The battle of Crete constitutes a special operation and is thus examined in the last Part of this book.
Thassos was occupied on April 15 and Samothraki on April 19.
In Limnos, the Naval Commander, who was the head of the Garrison, of Infantry company strength, replied to the German ultimatum that he would resist. On April 24, the Germans after an air bombardment of the Garrison positions, landed a regiment on the coast of Bournia bay (on the northern part of the island) as well as on Moudros. The Garrison, after fighting and immobilising the Germans for a few hours withdrew towards the cape of Agia Irini, where those of the troops that were not captured, dispersed.
In Evia, after the German aircraft repeatedly had bombarded from April 10 to 24, Halkida, Limni, Orei and on the night of April 24 to 25 the naval station of Gouves, troops landed at Orei and moved towards Edipsos and Halkida, occupying the latter on April 25.
The Cyclades islands were occupied within the first fortnight of May.
Kerkyra was occupied by the Italian troops, that had begun to land there since April 28.
The Italians also occupied the islands of Kephalonia, Ithaki and Zakynthos, from May 1 to 5.
Lesvos and Chios were occupied by German troops on May 4 and Samos, on May 8.
Greece was already writhing under the pressure of the conquerors, but the spirit was never subjugated and the hope for freedom warmed her existence so as to continue once more on the road leading towards the destiny of the Nation.
A General review of the German attack against Greece
and the End of the War
- The decision of Germany to attack Greece was taken in the beginning of November 1940, in order to secure the flank of the German Army that would be operating against Russia.
The begining and the conduct of the ‘MARITA’ operation, which was the code name for the German attack against Greece, had been scheduled to take place in March 1941. Indeed, on March 2, 1941, the l2th German Field Army began to enter the Bulgarian territory and by March 9, its advanced guards reached the Greek – Bulgarian borders.
- To face this new threat, successive meetings were held in Athens between the Greek and the British political and military Leadership, from the beginning of January until the beginning of March 1941. As a result of these meetings, it was finally decided on March 26, that the Greek forces should defend in the Beles-Nestos area and the Vermio area would be secured by the joint Greek -British forces.
This decision was largely influenced by the intelligence reports about an impending military coup d’etat in Yugoslavia, which since March 29 had entered the Tripartite Agreement (Germany-Italy-Japan).
Indeed, on the night of March 26 to 27, the military coup overthrew the Yugoslavian Government and on March 29, a general mobilisation was declared. After this, the efforts of the Greek Leadership focused on the reinforcement of the forces in Eastern Macedonia in order to secure the fortified area of Beles-Nestos.
On the other hand, the situation created in Yugoslavia alarmed the Germans, who decided to launch an attack simultaneously against Greece and Yugoslavia on April 6.
- The attack against Greece began at 0515 hrs, on April 6, by the German troops that were deployed along the Greek – Bulgarian borders. The main effort of the Germans was directed against Beles mountain and Rupel pass.
By the evening of April 6, light German forces managed to descend on the valley of Rodopolis and take contact with the Kroussia area, while the forts at Eastern Beles continued to resist. East of Strymonas river and as far as Nestos, the Germans took contact with the main defensive area, without however recording any actual success. Further east, in the area of Xanthi and Komotini, the German troops by-passed Fort Echinos and Nymphaea and moved southwards.
On the following day, April 7, the fight continued with undiminished intensity. The area of Beles-Nestos, despite the occupation of Fort Istimbei and Kelkayia, remained essentially intact. However, the collapse of the Yugoslavian Army and the lack of available forces, to cover the left flank of the area, created a serious danger that the forces deployed in the above area might be cut off from mainland Greece.
On April 8, the third day of the attack, the Germans despite their efforts and the occupation of Fort Popotlivitsa were unable to break through the fortified position. However, the rapid advance of the 2nd Armoured German Division inside the Greek territory through the corridor of Axios river and the attack against Thessaloniki, that was expected to occur on the following day, constituted a danger threat for the EMFAS, that was bound to be captured if it remained on the defensive area.
The withdrawal of its forces towards the ports of Macedonia and their transport by sea, as had been originally decided, was impossible, since there were neither the reserves to cover the withdrawal, nor the ships required. Under these circumstances and in order to avoid pointless sacrifice, the General Headquarters ordered the EMFAS to capitulate.
The capitulation was signed at 1400 hrs, on April 9, in Thessaloniki, between the Commander of the EMFAS, Lieutenant General Bakopoulos and the Commander of the 2nd German Armoured Division, containing fairly honourable terms for the Greek troops. The hostilities ceased by the same evening, after notifying the units of the capitulation.
- After the occupation of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace and the capitulation of the EMFAS, the German forces crossed Axios river on April 9 and advanced towards Edessa. Simultaneously, other German forces, coming from Yugoslavia entered the Greek territory from the direction of Monastiri, occupied Florina and took contact with the Greek – British forces in the defensive area of Pisoderi-Kirli Derven (Klidi). On the same day, the Germans seized Ahris and established contact with the Italians in the Northern Epirus Front.
The German advance along the axis of Monastiri-Florina-Kozani created a serious threat for the rear of the Kaimaktsalan-Vermio defensive area, that was occupied by the Greek -British ‘W’ Force, under the command of General Wilson. After this, it was decided to evacuate the above area and to occupy the line of defense Siniatsiko-Vourinos-Olympus.
A battle was conducted in this area on April 13 and l4. Afterwards, because of the gap created in the area of Kleissoura (of Kastoria), the Greek – British forces withdrew towards Kalambaka.
The Germans continued their advance southwards, via Grevena and, on April l6, seized Kalambaka. Thus, they succeeded in interposing their forces between the British Expeditionary Corps and the Greek Army that was withdrawing from Albania.
- The British Expeditionary Force, after fierce fighting at the passes of Olympus, withdrew gradually along the axis of Larissa-Lamia-Athens. In order to cover its withdrawal from ports of the mainland of Greece and the Peloponnese towards Crete and Egypt, it occupied the line of Thermopilae-Brallos with strong rear guards, that managed to contain the German columns for two days (April 23 and 24).
The departure of the British Expeditionary Corps from Greece began in the night on April 24 to 25 and ended on May 1, 1941, under extremely adverse conditions. The British forces were transferred to Egypt and Crete.
- The Greek Army that fought in Northern Epirus, was ordered to withdraw towards the defence area in the borders, due to the unfavourable development of the battle in Macedonia.
The WMFAS began its withdrawal in the evening on April 12, 1941, without serious difficulties, along the axis of the Devolis and Aliakmonas valleys. The XIII Division, which had been assigned to cover the gap created in the area of Klissoura, conducted fierce battles on April l5, near Argos Orestiko. After Kastoria had been occupied by the Germans and its withdrawal route had been cut off, the WMFAS directed its divisions towards Epirus via the mountain routes of Pindos.
In the night of April l3, the EFAS withdrawal began as well. Meanwhile the troop morale began to decline and there were a lot of leaks. Nevertheless, for reasons of high national interests, it was expedient that the fight should continue.
By April 20, the situation had become critical. Under these circumstances and without the approval of the General Headquarters, the Commander of the C’ Army Corps, Lieutenant General Georgios Tsolakoglou took the initiative and signed a capitulation agreement with the Germans, after communicating first with the Commanders of the A’ and B’ Army Corps and most Division commanders. The capitulation was signed in the evening on April 20, in Votonosi village in Metsovo. Subsequently, the Commander of the EFAS, Lieutenant General Ioannis Pitsikas considered himself ‘resigned’ and, on the following day, abandoned the command of the EFAS, which was assumed by Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou.
- After the capitulation, the forced march of the Army continued southwards, in order to arrive in the evening on April 23 south of the line Igoumenitsa-Metsovo and thus to avoid being captured by the Italians.
During the early hours of April 23, the King and the Government departed for Crete. On the same day, the Commander-in-Chief, Alexandros Papagos, resigned.
On April 25, Lieutenant General Tsolakoglou, after assigning the command of the Army in Epirus to Lieutenant General Demestichas, departed for Athens, in order to form a Government.
On May 2, Hitler’s decision to grant complete freedom to the Greek officers and soldiers, who were considered prisoners of war until then, was made public. The Greek Large Units, after surrendering their armament, moved towards various areas and disbanded.
Thus ended the last act of the drama, of the Albanian Epic, the epilogue of which was to culminate in the Battle of Crete. The Greek Army had written pages of unsurpassable glory, attracting the admiration of the civilised world. Yet its destiny was to be occupied by the two Great Powers of the Axis.